WASHINGTON: The administration of President Barack Obama is completing a counterterrorism manual that will establish clear rules for targeted-killing operations, but it contains a major exemption for the CIA’s campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan.
The Washington Post reported on Saturday this exemption will allow the CIA to continue striking Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan for a year or more before the agency is forced to comply with more stringent rules spelled out in the document.
According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 2,627 and 3,457 people have been reportedly killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, between 475 and nearly 900 being civilians.
The covert strikes are publicly criticised by the Pakistani government as a violation of sovereignty but American officials believe they are a vital weapon in the war against terrorists.Few of the victims are publicly identified. The manual is expected to be submitted to Obama for final approval within weeks, the paper said.
The Post said the adoption of a formal guide to targeted killing marks a significant milestone: the institutionalisation of a practice that would have seemed anathema to many before the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The subjects covered in the playbook include the process for adding names to kill lists, the legal principles that govern when US citizens can be targeted overseas and the sequence of approvals required when the CIA or US military conduct drone strikes outside war zones, the paper said.
According to The Post, the effort to draft the playbook was nearly derailed late last year by disagreements among the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon on the criteria for lethal strikes.
They led to granting the CIA a temporary exemption for its Pakistan operations as a compromise that allowed officials to move forward with other parts of the playbook. –The decision to allow the CIA strikes to continue was driven in part by concern that the window for weakening al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan is beginning to close, with plans to pull most U.S. troops out of neighboring Afghanistan over the next two years. CIA drones are flown out of bases in Afghanistan.
The CIA exception is expected to be in effect for ‘less than two years but more than one’, a former official said, although he noted that any decision to close the carve-out ‘will undoubtedly be predicated on facts on the ground.’
Obama’s national security team agreed to the CIA compromise late last month during a meeting of the ‘principals committee’, comprising top national security officials, that was led by White House counterterrorism adviser John O Brennan, who has since been nominated to serve as CIA director.
Senior administration officials have expressed unease with the scale and autonomy of the CIA’s lethal mission in Pakistan. But they have been reluctant to alter the rules because of the drone campaign’s results.
The playbook is ‘a step in exactly the wrong direction, a further bureaucratization of the CIA’s paramilitary killing programme’ over the legal and moral objections of civil liberties groups, said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s National Security Project.
Signature strikes contributed to a surge in the drone campaign in 2010, when the agency carried out a record 117 strikes in Pakistan. The pace tapered off over the past two years before quickening again in recent weeks.
None of the rules applies to the CIA drone campaign in Pakistan, which began under President George W. Bush. The agency is expected to give the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan advance notice on strikes. But in practice, officials said, the agency exercises near complete control over the names on its target list and decisions on strikes.
Imposing the playbook standards on the CIA campaign in Pakistan would probably lead to a sharp reduction in the number of strikes at a time when Obama is preparing to announce a drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan that could leave as few as 2,500 troops in place after 2014.